The television in John Canepa's modest living room sheds its silver-blue light on Canepa, who's ensconced on a sofa reading one of those magazine sweepstakes offers: URGENT: JOHN CANEPA, DON'T FORFEIT THIS TEN MILLION DOLLAR FORTUNE!.. SOMEONE JUST LIKE YOU THREW AWAY MILLIONS OF DOLLARS.
"It wasn't me," insists Mike Aulby as he reads over his father-in-law's shoulder. Aulby doesn't throw away millions. In fact, his throwing ability has earned him thousands. Besides, Aulby says he moves around too much on the pro bowling tour to get mail from Ed McMahon.
As the 1986 PBA tour opened last week in Union City, Calif., Aulby was ready to improve on his performance in 1985, when he won six tournaments and $201,200, the biggest take-home pot in bowling history. And he got off to a respectable start with a ninth-place finish worth $3,200.
IN YOUR HANDS THIS VERY MINUTE MAY BE THE WINNING NUMBER THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER.
January 20, 1986
This very minute Aulby doesn't need any winning numbers. He puts all his on the overhead telescore. His average in '85 was 213.17, half a pin behind Mark Baker, who led the circuit. At 25, Aulby is the most lethal lefthander since Earl Anthony, who won more PBA events than anyone. "Mike's potential is unlimited," says the now retired Anthony. With praise like that, who needs Ed McMahon?
"Mike's got so much talent, it's sickening," says Dave Davis, an 18-time PBA champ. "And I don't mean that negatively. He's a very nice kid from a good family background."
Aulby's an unthreatening sort: shy, easygoing.... "Friendly," suggests Canepa, who runs the Saratoga (Calif.) Lanes. "That's the word, friendly." Even Aulby's mother-in-law thinks so. "The first time I saw him," says Polly Canepa, "I thought, 'What a nice personality!' "
"What did you think of him when we stayed out on our first date until 4 a.m.?" asks her daughter, Tami, who has been married to Aulby for 2½ years.
"Well," answers Polly. "I guess there's such a thing as being too friendly."
Peering out from behind rimless aviator glasses, Aulby offers a wry half-smile with a kind of frank diffidence. His hair is swept back and obedient, and there's a furry red clump over his upper lip that may be a mustache. He's got piecrust coloring and apple-pie virtues.
Aulby worries a lot about his fans. Back home in Indianapolis he gives away the 50 or so balls he uses each year. He also oversees youth leagues. After he bowls a frame on each lane, the kids bowl against his total score. If a kid's score with his handicap is better than Aulby's he wins a patch that says: I BEAT MIKE AULBY. "Those kids take me to the cleaners all the time," he says.
Aulby grew up in Indianapolis and still lives there in a house he built with his winnings. His father was a glazier, which made young Mike a hero in sandlot baseball in Franklin Township. If his team broke a window, his dad would fix it for free. When Mike was 12, his older sister, Peggy, let him tag along with her to the Playbowl Lanes. By 16 he had made Ripley's Believe It or Not for racking up six Indy 300s in six months. When Aulby's mother tucked her son in at night, he would tell her, "Mom, I don't want to go to classes tomorrow. I want to bowl."
So he bowled and he bowled and he bowled. He bowled when he got home from school. He bowled when he got off work. Sometimes he even bowled when he worked; he had a job in a bowling alley. Then one Halloween night his car got bowled over by a freight train. He stopped at a railroad crossing. He looked left, he looked right. The next look he took, he saw a hospital ceiling. He had 60 stitches in his scalp. The headline in the Indianapolis Star read: BOWLER HIT BY TRAIN.
But he was bowling a week later with his head swathed in bandages. He joined the tour in 1979 and beat Anthony by 28 pins in the finals of the PBA National in Las Vegas. His mother drove 60 miles to the Sears store in Bloomington, Ind. to watch the TV coverage of the finals because the local station was running an old Tarzan movie. Aulby wanted to run some of his $15,000 winnings through the slots at the Showboat's casino, which sponsored the National, but casino officials wouldn't let him. They knew he was only 19 from watching the tournament the night before.
The next year Aulby was third on the money list. But by '83 his career graph was showing sharp, declining jags. He slipped to No. 52 in winnings. "I hated the traveling," he recalls. His parents figured his proposed marriage was a "bad career move." But he got hitched anyway. Tami eventually won Mike's folks over, and he regained his bowling form. He won his first tournament in three years in October 1984 and, despite ailments that sidelined him for a month, finished fourth that year in total earnings.
On the lanes Aulby is loose, lithe and limber. He cradles the ball in his hands as if contemplating Yorick's skull. Then he takes four careful steps, curls the ball behind him and releases it in a long, liquid motion. The ball bellies out precariously toward the last board on the lane, then grips the wood and curves back into the 1-2 pocket. Aulby stops at the foul line and poises on his right foot like a ballet dancer. When the pins go down, often in a strike, he does a little jitterbug cakewalk.
He cakewalked to victory at last winter's PBA National, in which he jilted the best man at his wedding, Bob Handley, in the semis, and his brother-in-law, Steve Cook, in the finals. Cook, whose eyelids are always soulfully adroop, is married to Tami's sister Candi and is the moist Northern California counterpart to Aulby's dry Midwestern style. As a doubles team, they're an amazing spectacle. Aulby is 5'8" and 160 pounds. Cookie Monster stands 6'7" and looks as if he would displace about 300 pounds in a hot tub. They snared the PBA Doubles Classic in June, splitting $25,000.
In his living room last week, John Canepa read aloud from yet another $10 million sweepstakes: DID YOU EVER IN YOUR WILDEST DREAMS THINK THAT SOME DAY—HARDWORKING, BILL-PAYING YOU—WOULD STAND A CHANCE OF COMING INTO THIS KIND OF MONEY?
Aulby still couldn't quite comprehend his '85 windfall. "It hasn't really sunk in yet," he said. With the end of a teaspoon, Polly scratched clear the hidden poker hand on a sheet of California lottery tickets. During his Strike It Rich promotions, John hands them out to anyone who makes a strike when the headpin is green. "I don't really bowl for the money," Aulby explained. "Trophies are my incentive."
"I could buy a lot of trophies with $10 million," said Polly.
But as Mike and Tami have learned, $585,688 in career earnings goes a long way toward paying for a new Corvette, a customized van and a home in Indy. The change left over paid for ceramic tiles in the foyer. Tami insisted on a heavy grade and asked for spares. The contractor didn't think she needed any. "These tiles are too strong to break," the contractor told her. "You'd have to drop a bowling ball on them."
"That's a definite possibility," Tami said.